Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari-El, is a post-post-apocalyptic atrocity, pure Soylent Green. I've been to my share of provincial cities across Russia, gladly even, but I've never seen any regional capital as wretched as Yoshkar-Ola, city of 260,000. I can't remember colors there -- not even gray. All that sticks in my mind are the lifeless paneli, concrete boxes. Some half-inhabited, others half-built and abandoned. The vegetation was the color of dust. There were few cars on the chewed roads, which hadn't been repaved in years. Even downtown, we drove on unpaved roads to get to the offices of the local Moskovsky Komsomolets. For some reason there was a huge raft or dingy behind the building, and a dog barking from behind it.
"Why would you want to go to Mari-El?" one Chuvash had asked me before I left. "They're all short, ugly, slant-eyed people. It's depressing over there."
* * *
The best explanation for the high suicide rates is ethnicity. The Mari are a Finno-Urgic people. If the Finno-Urgs will be remembered for one contribution to humanity, it's that they're the suicide champs of the universe. The Mari are always fielding a top suicide relay squad, competing for the world suicide title with Hungary, Udmurtia and Finland. Estonia's rate is about half that of Mari-El's, but that could be because so much of the population there is ethnic Russian and mixed. Or maybe not: Mari-El is only 40% Mari. But it's 100% fucked.
The Mari are also probably the last people in Europe to practice paganism on a wide scale. It's the one thing, along with suicide, that the Mari share with the Chuvash: a late devotion to paganism. The Chuvash only converted in the 18th century.
Then of course there's the drinking problem. Chuvashia, with its high concentration of vodka and beer plants, has one of the worst drunkness problems in all of Russia. Mari-El is just about the poorest republic outside of the Caucuses, depending on which statistics you follow. Mari-El has little except for armaments factories (they make the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles there), secret nuclear missile silos, and hunting areas for the richer Chuvash neighbors. Who the fuck wouldn't drink like a flailing snake fish if they were stuck living in Yoshkar-Ola with no way out? The city was the living incarnation of one of those Platonov novels, that surreal mixture of utter desolation, boredom and hunger creating a sidewalk of famished insectoids.
"It's hard for the dog -- he lives only because he was born, just like me."
* * *
It was a long weekend. Talking. That's all I remember everyone doing from the time I boarded the train at Kazansky Vokzal last Thursday until the time I boarded the train at the Cheboksary Central Train Station four days later, mercifully on my way back to Moscow. My ears were raw.
At Kazansky Vokzal in Moscow, I took an SV lux cabin for about 50 dollars because as a rule I like to be left alone, and the chances are that someone going to Cheboksary can't afford 50 bucks for an SV car.
When I first boarded, and when we first chugged off, I was alone in my cabin. Grateful and alone. That was when Vadim showed his face. A thin younger-thirties Russian male with gold chains, a linen blazer and those weird sandworm-colored fancy sandals that European males like to wear along with their linen blazers. Smiling like one of those people who likes himself. Few things in life are more repulsive than a person who likes himself.
He tried several times to start up conversation with me. I thought to myself, "Is he gay? Is he trying to make a pass at me? Why the hell aren't I ever put into a train compartment with a hot babe? Why am I always stuck with some male chatterbox. Jesus Christ, he's going to have opinions about everything. He's going to tell me what the West is really like, how he's traveled all over Europe and has no desire to go to America because 'there's nothing interesting there.'"
I'm as much a Russophile as the next alienated Westerner -- my father recently even accused me of being a "Russian nationalist" -- so I think I have the right to call a spade a spade when it comes to the downside of Russians: they can talk and talk and talk until pus pours out of your ears.